The National Climate Assessment released in May by the federal government warned the U.S. transportation system is becoming “increasingly vulnerable to climate change impacts.”
At the 33rd World Congress of the World Association for Waterborne Transport Infrastructure (PIANC) in San Francisco last month, Dan Mecklenborg, senior vice president and chief legal officer of Ingram Barge Co., detailed how climate change is affecting the inland waterways industry.
“Barge transportation has always been profoundly impacted by weather events, but during the past 10 years these events have become more extreme and more frequent than we’ve ever experienced before,” he said.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports between 1980 and 2011 there have been 110 events that have caused more than $1 billion in damage, and these events have become more frequent in recent years—33 of them during the five-year period 2007-2011.
NOAA also predicted acceleration in the sea-level rise along the Gulf Coast. For example, the percentage of land underwater in Orleans parish, home to New Orleans, is expected to climb from 54 percent currently to 85 percent by the end of the century.
Mecklenborg summarized some of the major weather events of the past several years, and discussed how flooding, hurricanes, ice and low water have affected Ingram and steps the company is taking or planning to mitigate those risks. With 4,700 barges and 140 towboats, Ingram is the largest carrier on the U.S. inland waterways.
Flooding, he said, means barge companies need to reduce their tow size, thin out “fleets” (essentially parking lots for barges), and double up and double check rigging of barges.
Typically, a single 9,000-horsepower towboat on the lower Mississippi can push 40 barges arranged eight wide and five deep, carrying a total of 70,000 tons of cargo.
With extreme currents during floods, a barge operator may need to reduce the size of flotillas to 25 barges while using the same size towboat, essentially reducing capacity by about 40 percent to 42,000 tons.
“Of course that greatly reduces productivity, and increases costs to us,” Mecklenborg noted. If the cargo on those 15 barges cut from the tow had to move by road, it would result in 1,050 additional trucks on the nation’s highways.
Not only did Hurricane Katrina “decimate” the Gulf Coast in 2005, but Ingram had towboats and barges driven onto river banks or land along the Gulf Coast because of Hurricanes Rita in 2005 and Ike in 2009. Hurricane Gustave in 2008 affected Ingram’s operations in the Baton Rouge area, which Mecklenborg noted is almost 200 miles inland.
After one of its barges was found in the lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans after Katrina, Ingram was accused of causing flooding in that area. The catastrophe resulted in 200 deaths and many injuries, in addition to extensive property damage.
“We spent the next five years battling lawsuits that involved over 2,000 claimants seeking to recover from us for these damages and loss of life,” he said. “Fortunately, the court concluded that we were entirely without fault in this event and that the collapse of the Industrial Canal’s flood wall… preceded our barge’s impact and the barge had floated through the opening and into the Lower Ninth Ward, but did not cause the event,” Mecklenborg said.
In the wake of those storms, the Coast Guard has become “incredibly proactive,” he said, and Ingram has developed plans to not only promptly remove personnel and equipment from danger areas, but create “an experienced crew of emergency responders prepared to move into a hurricane zone after the storm abates.”
In 2007, the upper Mississippi River froze all the way down below St. Louis; in 2009, record ice storms in Western Kentucky shut Ingram’s operations headquarters for two weeks; and this past winter there were extreme snow and ice conditions on the upper Ohio River and Illinois River.
Ice also forces barge companies to reduce the sizes of tows, work boats in convoys to break ice more effectively, and in some cases halt operations to protect employees.
In 2012, the barge industry struggled with low water conditions from the severe Midwest drought. Carriers were forced to load barges more lightly to lessen draft, reduce tow sizes, navigate in narrower channels and reduce speed. A number of barges went aground in the Mississippi River.
About 70 percent of the water that flows into the Mississippi comes from the Missouri River, and in December 2012, the Army Corps of Engineers announced it would reduce flows from the upper reservoirs on the Missouri River, stating the agency was required by law to do so by the river’s operating plan.
Mecklenborg said “what started to develop was a near crisis between the St. Louis area and Cairo, Ill.,” as water levels dropped and that caused a number of groundings along the Mississippi River and the “Rock Pinnacles,” near Thebes, Ill., were exposed.
The barge industry and shippers mounted a campaign to convince the Corps to increase the water flow off the Missouri and expedite the removal of the pinnacles, and after the White House got involved, the agency was given the green light to expedite the rock removal.
These events made shippers “feel less confident of the reliability of inland water transportation,” Mecklenborg said, adding it’s critical for the industry to take steps to preserve that confidence.
Contingency planning for each kind of emergency is important, as is engaging with policymakers, he said.
Mecklenborg also believes the current approach to managing the Mississippi River watershed as several sub-watersheds “is an approach that can lead to inflexibility and parochial decision making, which we don’t think serves the greater interest during extreme weather events.”
He said a summit meeting of the America’s Watershed Initiative in Louisville, Sept. 30-Oct. 1, will bring stakeholders together for the purpose of looking at how the Mississippi River may be managed better by using a “whole watershed” approach.
This article was published in the August 2014 issue of American Shipper.